In the end, I was able to successfully breastfeed both of my children, but I struggled tremendously at the beginning to nurse my first child. I will never forget how hurt, humiliated and worried I felt as I struggled to make breastfeeding work.
My son had trouble latching. When I offered him my breast, he’d turn away from me, as though I’d offered him something spoiled. Either that, or he’d fall right asleep as soon as my breast came near.
I had to hand-express my colostrum and feed it to him with a syringe. Once my milk came in, things got a little better, but even then, it was difficult to situate him just right, tip my breast at the just the perfect angle and get him to actually drink the good stuff.
I spent his first few weeks crying more than he did. I felt like a failure, like I had no idea what I was doing and he didn’t either. I felt disconnected from my body. I thought breastfeeding was supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. But it didn’t seem that way at all.
I might have given up had it not been for my really supportive midwives and doulas, who offered me tips and called me every day until I got it right. But not everyone I knew was as considerate of my feelings, and sometimes things were said to me that really got under my skin (the wash of postpartum hormones weren’t helping either).
A few years after my first child was born, I became a board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and have helped hundreds of mothers breastfeed. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that what you say to a mom who is struggling with breastfeeding matters. It really does. A mom who is struggling with breastfeeding doesn’t really need to know what lactation cookie worked for you, or what the latest research says on the importance of breastfeeding. She doesn’t need any extra guilt or shame—she already feels plenty of that herself.
Unless you’re a health professional, let a mom and baby figure it out for themselves, mmmkay?
Here are some of the other things she probably doesn’t need to hear:
1. “But breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.”
Some babies come out of womb, latch right on and all is perfect from the start. But it doesn’t happen so easily for many women. Babies definitely have inborn breastfeeding instincts, and a mom’s boobs usually know how to make milk, but no two moms and babies have ever met each other before. Breastfeeding is almost always a learning process for both.
2. “Maybe your baby just doesn’t like breastfeeding.”
Yes, I’m sure my baby just freaking hates the warm milk that comes directly out of its snuggly mama. The fact is, usually when a baby is struggling with breastfeeding there is something happening that is preventing it from working. There are almost always solutions out there, too (here’s a good link to some common breastfeeding challenges in the early weeks and possible solutions).
3. “You need to relax.”
There are definitely reasons that relaxation can help with breastfeeding, since the “letdown” trigger can be inhibited by stress. But do you know what’s the worst thing to say to someone that’s stressed? Telling them to relax. It pretty much always stresses them out more. Also? Stress is probably not the primary reason a mama is struggling with breastfeeding.
4. “Breast is best.”
The thing is, almost all moms who want to breastfeed are trying so hard to do so because they know of the many benefits of breastfeeding. But they already feel enough pressure to provide these things to their newborn without the extra shame that a statement like “breast is best” might give them.
5. “Why don’t you just give up?”
Obviously, there are some moms who don’t want to breastfeed or find the struggle to make it work so difficult and traumatizing that stopping is the best choice for them. But most don’t need that sort of suggestion. You probably have little clue where they are on their journey, and it’s really not anyone else’s place to say when a mom should stop breastfeeding.
6. “You’re starving her! You should nurse more often/Why are you nursing him again?”
You may have lots of opinions about a baby’s feeding patterns. A lot of people don’t realize that breastfed babies usually eat a lot more frequently than formula-fed babies do, and that breastfed babies do so for comfort as well as nutrition (there's absolutely nothing wrong with that). Unless you’re a health professional, let a mom and baby figure it out for themselves, mmmkay?
7. “You’re not trying hard enough.”
This has got to be, hands down, the worst one out there. And yet, it’s said to moms more often than you might think. Believe me, moms who are struggling to breastfeed are absolutely trying as hard as they can—and it’s no small feat considering how exhausting and demanding the newborn period can be.
'How is breastfeeding going, and how do you feel about it?' can go a long way.
So, what should you say to a mom who’s struggling to breastfeed?
How about some good, old-fashioned compliments like, “I can see how hard you’re trying to make this work,” or “What a great mom you are.”
Or what about not even offering your opinion at all? Lots of moms just want to talk and need a good listening ear. Something as simple and open-ended as, “How is breastfeeding going, and how do you feel about it?” can go a long way in helping a mother feel heard, and that can be really healing for her.
Also, instead of offering advice, offer concrete help. One of the hardest things about breastfeeding is fitting into your day. Newborns nurse so often, it’s hard for moms to feel like anything but feeding machines in those first few weeks, which can make them feel depressed and want to give up.
So, come over and hold her baby while she showers. Bring her dinner. Clean her kitchen.
Do it all without asking, too.
And finally, help her find a good lactation consultant or other breastfeeding expert. Nothing beats the know-how of a trained expert in the field.
But most of all, just be there for her, listen to her feelings and leave your judgments at the door.
Photograph by: Wendy Wisner